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His Girl Friday (1940) is Really a Drama and Not As Screwy As You Think

October 20, 2018

I’ve watched His Girl Friday dozens of times, and each time I’ve howled in laughter and felt all light and charmed afterwards. On Tuesday, I had back-to-back bombshells dropped in the middle of an attempted relaxing night, so I thought to myself, “girl, let’s chill and watch His Girl Friday for peace of mind”. That plan completely backfired. This time around, His Girl Friday was a dark and sad experience. In this time of conscious awakening where the parallels between life and art feel more prevalent than ever, that night was the first time I’ve ever seen His Girl Friday as a drama, art completely intimating life, with some comedic moments and really likable faces sprinkled throughout. It’s ability to live as either a comedic love story or a truly satirical downer is a testament to the brilliance in its all-around production: Ben Hecht’s 1928 play The Front Page and the 1931 film adaptation of the same name,  director Howard Hawks’ decision to change paper man Hildy Johnson to a woman, Charles Lederer’s brutally honest screenplay, and Rosalind Russell’s strong yet subtly stunning performance.

I know what some of you hardcore screwball fans are thinking; a subtle performance from Russell… in the most iconic screwball comedies of all time? The woman who tackles a man to the ground for a scoop on a story? Yep, that woman. There’s a moment when Russell, as Hildy, is so flustered—near panting with anxiety—that she stops a beat to realize her predicament, where her chance of comfort and peace of mind is at stake. She’s near tears at the compulsion to keep going, attempting to find her coat and hat so that she can finally leave the circus of a newsroom behind. But she’s somehow swept back into it, when all she wanted to do in the first place was to tell her conniving ex-husband that she’s about to marry someone else and leave the news world behind. It’s deeper than a career vs. marriage in Rosalind’s portrayal of Hildy. It’s reconciling one’s own destiny. Hildy’s dilemma is figuring out what will bring her true happiness: a lucrative position being a voice for the people (regardless of how delusional that truth is) or using her skills to raise new voice.

But Walter’s (Cary Grant) personal collusion knows no bounds. He knows Hildy is addicted to the glory of the news world, the fast-paced business of it all and the thrill of a good story. And here, it’s not just some story, it’s a story for the books. Earl Williams, a white mentally unstable man, has killed a black police officer in cold blood. Although his mental capacity is in question by some, the city’s mayor and sheriff will do what it takes to rule him as sane (and a Communist) so they can expedite his execution to secure the black vote for re-election. There’s a scene between the sheriff and a medical examiner discussing the politics of the situation and Earl’s execution while Earl sits exhausted and ignored in the background. This scene is frankly horrific to watch especially in contrast with today’s transparent political attempts to sway voters regardless of whose life is at stake. This type of sadistic political warfare with no regard to humanity is what disgusts Hildy. There’s a trail of broken lives this type of lying leaves in its path, and Hildy witnesses that clear as day when Mollie arrives.

An emotional wreck determined to speak truth to power, Mollie bombards the newsroom intent on correcting the defaming lies spread by the paper about her friendship with the lonely, disconnected Earl. Mollie’s anger is met with a callous disdain from the men in the newsroom. They verbally and emotionally eviscerate her until Hildy soberly escorts her out the room as Mollie yells “they ain’t human!” to which Hildy retorts, “I know, they’re just newspaper men.” After she leaves, the men are quiet. Hawks forces the viewer to sit in silence and feel the men’s shame in response. But like true “chumps,” the ring of a phone and the appearance of a potential quote resets the men to their wise cracking, jaded ways.

Watching that moment of silence, feeling it, and hearing Mollie’s cries, along with re-watching the scene between Earl, the Mayor and the psychiatrist, completely shifted the tone of the movie for me for the first time ever. I was pulled out of this fast-talking, silly “screwball” and thrown into a reality that has been going on for decades, but we’ve been too busy viewing media passively to notice or care.

Never mind the European war, we’ve got something bigger than that! … No never mind the Chinese earthquake, this is more important… Leave the rooster story alone, that’s human interest.

And then we’re hit with a weird contrast at the film’s 3rd act, when Walter and Earl have roped Hildy back into the news world. Oddly enough, Hildy becomes a gendered stereotype only when the promise of career advancement is placed in front her. It’s a stark difference from the woman we meet at the film’s start. That woman, who is two hours away from starting a life as a wife and eventual mother, is tough, strong, independent, and a step ahead of Walter’s bullshit. She can even have two separate conversations at once by phone and in person. But when the promise of career development is an option—as Walter so casually convinces her— she’s short-sighted, apologetic, pushed around, and easily manipulated. She’s foolishly ego driven, allowing Walter to convince her of a hubris filled dream. ‘You do this story, then you’ll be the talk of the town. You’ll change the world. They’ll name streets after you!’ She lights up.

It’s the American Dream. ‘The whole world will recognize me for my brilliance and the change that only I can make. I can change minds with a few written words.’ I’ve personally felt this. I do this. We all do in this in social media age, right? Hildy falls for Walter’s lies therefore falling into a stereotypical gender role in order to follow a “destined” path to achieve it. It’s her hubris—not necessarily love—that convinces her to throw an alternate life with Bruce (Ralph Bellamy) away. I never noticed any of this before any time I’ve watched His Girl Friday, but this time it was all clear as day.

Frankly, Classic Hollywood really does have a magical quality of putting rose-colored glasses over your eyes. That’s the struggle many of us who love films from the past deal with, especially when recommending them to more to modern-day minded folks. But honestly, that’s what all media does, from people feeling warm and fuzzy when singing “Pumped Up Kicks,” to families laughing with Archie Bunker of All in the Family, rather than realizing the point was to laugh at him. Sometimes deeper meanings are right in your face when engaging with art. We all just choose engage or disengage with them but sometimes subtext is hard to focus on and satire can be a dangerous tool.

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